• Since February, California-based manufacturer CloudMinds has shipped quite 100 robots to China.

    Many of these have gone to hospitals, where the XR-1 provides information to patients and helps guide visitors to the proper department.

    The artificial intelligence (AI) incorporated into the machines means they will operate their own. They are also connected to the newest 5G mobile networks, which suggests they will react very quickly.

    “The fast speeds and wide reach of 5G networks make them ideal for XR-1, which interacts by talking, gesturing, dancing and physically guiding people,” says CloudMinds president Karl Zhao.

    According to Wuhan Wuchang military hospital dean Wan Jun, they need been helpful. “CloudMinds robots’ contactless operation and reliability supported the sector hospital through a difficult time,” he says.

    A few dozen robots isn’t getting to make an enormous dent within the coronavirus outbreak, but it might be a symbol of what is coming.

    Artificial intelligence has made big progress in tasks like processing speech, which is making digital helpers more and more useful.

    Dr Anita Montes, an obstetrician-gynaecologist based in North Carolina, says voice-enabled app Suki saves her “hours and hours a day” writing notes.
    Image copyright Anita Montes
    Image caption Dr Montes uses a digital assistant to require notes

    “Proper charting is significant to good patient care,” she says.

    She thinks the service could be helpful for doctors who are handling Covid-19 patients as a result: “They might be spending 12 hours seeing patients, then hours more charting them, so any tools which will cut the time it takes are really helpful.”

    Until now, most people’s experience of digital assistants has been limited to recreationally focused services like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

    “Business usage is growing, but the digital assistant market is usually residential at the instant ,” says Blake Kozak, an analyst at global technology researcher Omdia.

    But quarantined helpers are turning to AI tools for help.

    “We are currently fixing more meetings than we ever have before,” says Dennis Mortensen, chief executive and co-founder of x.ai, an AI meeting scheduling tool that emails participants with potential times.

    “The situation is making people address software solutions, and that i doubt they’re going to return once things return to normal.”

    That’s excellent news for Microsoft, which recently began removing consumer-facing features like controlling music from its assistant Cortana’s skill set, and concentrating on personal productivity applications like reading emails aloud and scheduling meetings.
    Image copyright Getty Images
    Image caption Microsoft wants Cortana to be a private productivity tool

    “There may be a need for an assistant which will transcend answering questions or setting alarms,” Microsoft said during a statement.

    “Our ultimate goal for Cortana is to make an assistant which will assist you revisit time through your day so you’ll specialise in the items that matter most.”

    However, for anyone keen to use a digital assistant to lighten their load, Mr Mortensen advises choosing a variety of tools that every do one thing well.

    “I don’t expect anybody digital assistant to be ready to do everything, but I do think we’ll see start to ascertain AI agents being employed to try to to very well-defined tasks within subsequent five years,” he says.

    “You might need 10 or 11 to try to to all the small jobs you would like doing, but if we will get all of them to speak to every other, they might do truly great things.”

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    The staff at New York-based AI specialist IPsoft hope that’s the case.

    It develops software packages designed to fulfil roles traditionally performed by people, like an IT service desk engineer.

    Via its new online marketplace, prospective employers can interview the company’s assistant Amelia to make a decision if they ought to combat a digital employee instead of an individual .

    Costing $1,800 (£1,460) a month, their IT troubleshooter can reset passwords, unlock accounts and affect up to 1,000 inquiries a month.

    So should humans be worried about these up-and-coming digital rivals?

    Not consistent with Chloe Jessamy of admin support and digital marketing company Supportal Business Services in London.
    Image copyright Chloe Jessamy, Supportal Business Services
    Image caption Chloe Jessamy isn’t concerned about the challenge from digital assistants

    Her company supplies services, including PAs and web design, performed by humans, not computers.

    “I am not in the least worried about digital assistants,” she says.

    “My clients want hands-on support and communication, which needs a person’s touch. There’s only such a lot automation you’ll use.”

    Dr Will Venters, professor of data systems at the London School of Economics, supports this view.

    “Bots need careful management,” he says

    "They won’t question their work, they hold no ethical compass, they can’t easily explain how they received a choice and that they cannot understand the biases they could be applying.

    “Further, they work so quickly that the issues they cause can rapidly scale out of control.”

    So having a digital helper might cause you to more productive, but it’s worth remembering that they’re not perfect.

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